Friday, November 22, 2013

What is Southern food, John Egerton?

When I wrote n Thursday about the untimely passing of Nashville writer John Egerton, I told about the first time I met him, after a keynote speech at the Association of Food Journalists meeting in Atlanta in 1994.

I told about being in the elevator and how kind and down to earth he was to me, a new and star-struck food writer. What I forgot was that when I asked about his speech and admitted I couldn't take notes fast enough to keep up with it, he graciously handed his own copy of it to me.

On Friday afternoon, I was digging through my files when I found that speech. At the time it was written, there was no Southern Foodways Alliance. There were no chefs like Sean Brock or Vivian Howard. John T Edge wasn't a food writer yet. And many of us were just beginning to look in the direction Egerton was pointing.

Here's that speech, from the copy he handed me.

What is Southern Food?

I trust that you are by now sufficiently welcomed to Atlanta and the South, both verbally and gastronomically. The fact that the Association of Food Journalists has gathered here -- in this region, this city, this hotel -- to hold its annual conference seems altogether appropriate to me, much as would a convocation of Civil War historians in Richmond, or an Elvis resurrection in Memphis, or a Democratic Party convention in Little Rock (in a phone booth this year, I regret to say).
What better place to talk about food -- or eat it -- than in the South? And what better Southern place than Atlanta (leaving aside New Orleans, which is in another order of magnitude, and a world unto itself). We all enjoyed an introductory taste of Atlanta's leading culinary establishments last evening, and now we have just had our first sit-down meal together, a splendid repast prepared by the Ritz Carlton's renowned chef, Guenter Seeger -- applause, applause -- and this is only the beginning. For the next three days, you can expect to be amazed and delighted by the virtually endless showcase of Southern food, drink, and hospitality that is coming your way.
As a native of this city and a lifelong resident of the South -- and as a sometime cook, part-time food writer, and an all-time eater -- I have been awarded the enviable honor of bringing you what Susan Puckett and the organizers of this conference have billed as 'the keynote address.'
With all due respect to Susan, I think 'keynote' is the wrong word here. That would be fine in music, where the keynote is the main not, or politics, where it sounds the campaign theme -- but we're talking about food. So let's put this presentation in context and in perspective: let's call it the hors' d'oeuvres, or the appetizer, or a snack -- a small serving of food for thought, a verbal follow-up to what you've already eaten, and a foretaste of what's to come. For the rest of this week, you're going to be presented with an elegant suffiiciency of Southern cuisine and table talk. And for the rest of this lunch hour, you're going to get one man's opinions on the questions before the house, namely: What is Southern food? What is its past? What is its future?
First, what is it? Well, for openers, it's history and tradition. The South has saddled itself with many negative images down through the years -- from slavery, rebellion, and violence to segregation, isolation and poverty -- but it is the region's positive contributions to American life that have made it a contemporary land of hope and promise. The nation is far more aware than it used to be of the South's attractive characteristics. Geography and climate, for example. And natural beauty. And homegrown music in a variety of styles. And lots of good writers (more, I sometimes think, than readers). And speech -- often lyrical, colorful, expressive, magnetic. And, as significant as any of these, Southern food. The best regional cookery in America, in my humble opinion. I'll come back to defend that claim in a minute.
The popular image of Southern cookery endures -- notwithstanding the complaints of some that the food is too sweet or too greasy (and I'll come back to that too). We've had a long and richly deserved reputation for producing fine foods, for preparing and preserving and serving them, for eating them with gusto, and for writing and talking about them endlessly.
No other region of the country has produced anything like as many cookbooks as the South, over as long a period of time - from Mary Randolph/s "The Virginia House-Wife" in 1824 to "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook," a phenomenally successful collection of the 1990s. And right now, two of the nation's most successful food-oriented magazines, Southern Living and Cooking Light (both produced in Birmingham, Alabama, by the same company).
The history and traditions of food in the South can be seen in almost every community. Atlanta is an especially impressive case in point. "The Dixie Cook-Book," published here in 1883, ran to more than 1,300 pages; Henrietta Dull, better known as Mrs. S.R. Dull, home economics editor for the Atlanta Journal, first wrote her no-nonsense classic, "Southern Cooking," in 1928, and the book has never been out of print; both the Journal and the Atlanta Constitution have maintained a tradition of excellent food editors and writers down through the years, and most, like Nathalie Dupree, have written outstanding cookbooks. None, though, have been nearly as successful as Nathalie in the relatively new -- post World War II -- medium of television.
Atlanta has long been a hothouse of creativity and productivity in the wide world of food. It has recently attracted the famed Virginia-born food expert Edna Lewis to live and work here. It has a wondeful array of great restaurants and equally outstanding chefs, from Guenther Seeger here at the Ritz Carlton to the seriously Southern Scott Peacock at the Horseradish Grill. It has the influential restaurant critic Elliot Mackle, and food detective Shirley Corriher, and lively chapters of IACP and AIWF, and a wealth of talented cooks, stylists, photographers and writers, such as Jane Schneider, Kay Goldstein, Al and Mary Ann Clayton, Tim Patridge, Susan Mack and many more. And just now, there is a small but very hopeful move afoot to establish a regional society for the preservation and perpetuation of time-honored Southern foods.
So Southern food is history and tradition. It's also diversity. Contrary to popular belief, there's a lot more to it than grits and gravy and gooey desserts. I don't deny that Southerners tend to exercise a highly developed sweet tooth, or that most of them are partial to the many-splendored wonders of pork seasoning. I myself have been moved to declare publicly (for laughs, if not for literal accuracy) that the six major food groups in the South are sugar, cream, salt, butter, eggs and bacon grease. But I hasten to add the the Big Six don't embrace such classic Southern specialties as fresh spinach, sliced tomatoes, ambrosia, boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, tree-ripened peaches and unsweetened tea with lemon or lime. Far from being narrowly repetitious and mediocre at best, real Southern food is wonderfully varied and generally pleasing to the eye and the palate. Even when it's sweet or greasy, it can be superior. If you doubt that, let me invite you to try a wedge of chess pie or a platter of catfish and hush puppies.
Diversity in the context of Southern food also has other meanings. The South, after all, is a big region, stretching from the Eastern Shore of Virginia through parts of Kentucky and Missouri and Oklahoma to the western border of Texas. Thus, what we have come to call Tex-Mex is arguably Southern, and so are the town and country cuisines of Louisiana: Creole and Cajun. And Florida fare, with its Latin and Caribbean flavors. And the seafood and rice-based cookery of the Carolina Lowcountry. And the distinctive elements of mountain cookery in the Appalachians and the Ozarks. And so, of course, is the down-home/soul food/country cooking/home-style/Junior League/New Southern/tea-room/cafe/dinner on the ground/all-you-can-eat/field-hand food that has come traditionally from the Deep South, from Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and other states close by.
Diversity means, too, that this food is the historical property of all the South's people, white and black and brown, young and old, rich and poor. It was black cooks, both women and men, who did the lion's share of Southern cooking through the time of slavery and again in the segregation era. The white women for whom and with whom they worked in the kitchens of the region were ostensibly the teachers -- but in reality, it was the blacks who possessed the overall mastery of cooking that gave us this rich heritage and it was primarily they who lifted it out of the ordinary and up to the level of artistry. Without the contributions of black cooks, Southern food might well have been as dull and bland and forgettable as English food -- which is more or less what it was until it got a saving infusion of Native American foodstuffs and African creativity.
This is not to say, of course, that white women couldn't cook, or that all blacks were culinary geniuses; it's simply an acknowledgement that without what the nonwhites brought to it, southern food never would have soared. Ponder this: If most of America's hogs and corn are raised in the Midwest, and have been for over a century, why is that most of the best barbecue and country ham and cornbread, and roasting ears, and corn fritters and grits and corn whiskey have always come from here in the South -- and still do? The obvious answer is the natural superiority of Southern cooks and cookery.
So what is Southern food? It's partly an attitude, a way of thinking. It's technique. It's seasoning. It's a way of cooking, from the simplest to the most complex, that says to the interested observer, 'This isn't hard; you can do this -- roll up your sleeves and plunge in, and we'll delight in it together.'
And, finally, in the most concrete terms I can put it, Southern food is what we've eaten for generations, and what we still love to this day: country ham and beaten biscuits, spoonbread, pole beans, creamed corn and roasting ears, garden tomatoes, black-eyed peas, scalloped cabbage, almost any kind of barbecue (but especially pork) and the sauces that go with it, turnip greens and collards, Brunswick stew and burgoo, sweet potatoes and yams, plain and fancy grits, more kinds of cornbread than there are states in the union, yeast rolls, buttermilk, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee sippin' whiskey, crawfish bisque, jambalaya, eggs creole, fried tomatoes, gumbo, red rice, roux (and its upcountry equivalent, chicken gravy), chicken and dumplings, chicken pilau or perloo, angel biscuits, french toast, hush puppies, country sausage, sawmill gravy, catfish, white beans, fried apples, cornbread dressing, fried okra, baked onions, wilted lettuce salad, shrimp and oysters, country fried steak, squash casserole, pickled peaches, chow-chow, cheese straws, sorghum, guava jelly, quince jelly, pralines, apple stack cake, half-moon pies, black bottom pie, key lime pie, blackberry cobbler, boiled custard and eggnog, syllabub, jam cake, bourbon pecan cake, coconut cake, peach cobbler, apple dumplings. That's a partial list, off the top of my head.
And, lest we forget, Southern food is also the treasures we have created and put out for the rest of the world to share: fried chicken, iced tea, pecan pie, peach ice cream, strawberry shortcake, peanut brittle, Goo-Goo Clusters, Moon Pies -- and of course, Coca-Cola, along with most of the other soft drinks you can think of. For good measure, the South has also sent forth many of its native sons and daughters to become nationally prominent writers on food -- Craig Claiborne, Peter Feibleman, Eugene Walter, Jeanne Voltz, James Villas, Sara Belk and Vertamae Grosvenor, to name a few.
What all this adds up to, in my view, is this: For reasons that no one truly understands, the South is a fertile food culture, a place where people are caught up in food, almost obsessed with it, much like the people of France and Italy are. And as a consequence, you have this wonderfully productive and creative atmosphere full of great restaurants and chefs, home cooks, cookbook writers and readers, recipes, memorable meals -- and, of course, eaters. We are big on food, in part, I think, because of our history. There have been times, most notably during the Civil War and the Great Depression, when the vast majority of Southerners confronted the specter of malnutrition, hunger, even starvation. People who have known deprivation tend to carry the fear, or at least the memory, forever. When you think about it that way, "all you can eat' sounds more like an antidote for having nothing to eat. Whatever the case, I may reluctantly concede that the superiority of Southern food is a matter of opinion, or a matter of taste - but the pervasive Southern interest in food is a matter of fact, and it generates a continuous round of eating, drinking and socializing that is a positive pleasure for all who partake.

That pretty much covers the question of what Southern food is, and of what its past has been. Now let me close with a few words about its future. Time marches on, and all things change. Our slow food is threatened by the age of fast food. Health consciousness has made us consider the consequences of eating sugar, salt, butter, cream and pork fat. . . . Nouvelle cuisine has made all the old and traditional dishes seem out of style, of not out of favor. The white guys who used to take it for granted that someone else -- probably someone black, certainly someone female -- would be fixing their supper are learning that if they can't cook, they might not eat.
Southern food has to change, or it will die. Nobody wants to stay in the kitchen all the time. The food we eat should be easier and quicker to prepare, and more nutritious, and everybody ought to know how to cook and clean up afterward. My only plea is this: Don't throw out the great old dishes with the dishwater. Don't settle for processed, pre-cooked, artificial food when the real thing can be had with just a little thought and planning and acquired skill. Don't surrender to the food police without giving as much consideration to your mental health as your physical health. I am reminded of the words of John Thorne, Maine's "Outlaw Cook," who should have been a Southerner. "The whole anti-fat movement astonishes me," Thorne once said. "We read things written about lard that treat it as the moral equivalent of crack. The upshot of all this hysteria is going to be a generation of teenagers who will be sneaking out behind the barn to smoke not dope but beef brisket. And grandpa is going to slip out with them."
I also remember what the great jazzman Eubie Blake said on his 100th birthday, this after eating Southern for a century: "If I'd know I was gonna live this long," he declared, over a plate of ribs, "I'd have taken better care of myself."
May we all be as fortunate as Eubie Blake. And for a benediction, I can think of nothing better than the words of the Methodist ladies of Maysville, Kentucky, in their "New Kentucky Home Cook Book," dated 1884, to wit:
"Bad dinners go hand in hand with total depravity, while a well-fed man is already half saved."


Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Thank you.

RIP, John Egerton.

Ronni Lundy said...

Thank you! What a joy to find Egerton's voice, still ringing, still grinning, still poking and prodding and, most of all, still inviting everyone in. A lovely gift, and much appreciated, Kathleen